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article imageSocial equity the slumbering elephant behind legalizing marijuana

By Karen Graham     May 19, 2019 in Politics
Questions about marijuana and social justice have played a prominent role this year in several U.S. states' debates about pot legalization.
The debate centers around striking a blow for social justice after a decades-long drug war that disproportionately targeted minority and poor communities. And like the slumbering elephant in the center of the room, no one quite knows how to address its presence.
While the debates and discussions over social equity have been part of the marijuana legalization question, states that have already legalized recreational marijuana are also endeavoring to make up for the consequences and racial disparities of decades of policing pot.
The marijuana law-making process has been complicated by questions of how best to erase marijuana convictions and ensure that people who were arrested for pot benefit from legal marijuana markets. The thing is - advocates for social equity are saying that legalization hasn't done enough to achieve those goals.
In the US  the biggest consumer of drugs from Mexico  23 states and the capital Washington now allow...
In the US, the biggest consumer of drugs from Mexico, 23 states and the capital Washington now allow medical marijuana, and four others plus the US capital have legalized pot for recreational use
Yuri Cortez, AFP
Any number of ideas have been suggested, including clearing convictions; trying to carve out a place in the burgeoning cannabis business for minorities, the poor and people with past pot arrests; and channeling pot tax money to communities where arrests were prevalent.
Critics are even more disparaging, saying the legalization of pot has managed to accelerate inequality as cannabis becomes big business for companies generally run by white men. “We’re at the stage of marijuana reform 2.0,” said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who follows marijuana policy, according to the Associated Press.
Berman says the whole conversation has shifted from just being about legalization to “which track should we make sure we head down?”
Mexico is set to consider a bill to legalize marijuana; in a file image  its military burned the cro...
Mexico is set to consider a bill to legalize marijuana; in a file image, its military burned the crop
Guillermo Arias, AFP
Recreational pot is legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, while two-thirds of the states have legalized medical marijuana. But interestingly, in Colorado, a state report found that while arrests for marijuana were down, the arrest rate remained higher among blacks five years after a 2012 vote for legalization.
And not so surprising - the emerging marijuana industry is very white, at least according to the limited data available, says the AP.
“It’s obviously a problem,” said Morgan Fox of the National Cannabis Industry Association, which has helped craft suggestions for social equity legislation.
Two people share a cannabis joint
Two people share a cannabis joint
Fred Dufour, AFP/File
One encouraging sign is the efforts of the Cannabis Trade Federation. They announced on May 16 the formation of a task force centered on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the cannabis industry. The group will be working on crafting a diversity and equity policy in conjunction with the NAACP and other civil rights groups.
Why social equity is important today
Social equity is a concept that applies concerns of justice and fairness to social policy. Its use as a matter of policy has gained prominence since the 1960s. You could say President Richard Nixon's "war on drugs" was the cause of mass injustice that prompted the later need for social justice.
The Controlled Substance Act went into effect in 1970. From that time on, the government spent billions of taxpayer dollars enforcing drug policy. Cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug, which afforded law enforcement the leeway to prosecute heavily.
The country saw an increase in private, for-profit prisons spawned by the demand for beds to handle the numbers of arrests because drug policies were very helpful. During this time, the rate of arrest for minorities rose well above that of their white counterparts and remains high, despite roughly equal usage rates, for cannabis.
Here's the kicker - In 2017, 60,000 people were arrested for cannabis law violations. Of that number, 91 percent were arrested for cannabis possession only, (not drug trafficking or manufacturing). Nearly half, actually, 47 percent of the people arrested were Black or Latino.
So now we are looking at getting social equity to forge a path toward business ownership for the people who have been hurt most by previous cannabis laws. And we should be able to get to some kind of real justice if we have an open and honest discussion.
More about legalizing marijuana, social equity, Social justice, California, Colorado
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